The Markkanen family is no stranger to athletic success.
Pekka Markkanen played college basketball at the University of Kansas, and his wife Riikka had a professional career of her own. The eldest Markkanen, Eero, currently plays professional soccer in Sweden. Middle sibling Miikka has played basketball professionally in Finland.
With all of the success the family has had at the collegiate and professional levels, baby brother Lauri Markkanen might be the best of them all.
"We had a lot of futbols and basketballs around our backyard,” said Markkanen. “I was just all the time with basketball. I think that was part of my family. My mother played basketball and my brother plays basketball.”
Pekka Markkanen decided that an NBA career was out of reach for his career, but believes his son will have a chance to play professionally.
Arizona was the right fit for Lauri and his family in part because they believe he has a chance to make an impact right away.
“He plays as a (stretch) four. All players in that position at Arizona were seniors last year. (It was) the best chance to get playing time from day one,” said Pekka Markkanen in an interview with the associated press.
Markkanen is Arizona’s most talked-about freshman. Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins were 5-star recruits along with Markkanen, but they are known commodities: They played on the high school and AAU circuits before coming to Tucson. Markkanen, on the other hand, represents a lot of unknowns.
As 7’0 power forward who comes with all of the usual European stigmas, Markkanen has already been called “soft.”
The most common questions on draft reports are in regards to his physicality. Markkanen has heard this before and wants to break the mold.
"I know that's there [stigma], but I'm trying to be the opposite. I want to play tough,” said Markkanen at Arizona media day. "I had to learn [physical play] and the last couple of years’ people have been saying that to me, ‘you have to be tough.’ I'm getting better at it."
It’s a lazy assessment of European players to call them soft or claim they’re nothing but perimeter players. Markkanen appears to have a complete game.
Head coach Sean Miller touched on the different aspects of Markkanen’s game after he committed last November.
"We're ecstatic to get Lauri. He's a prolific three-point shooter from the FIBA three-point line and he puts the ball on the floor, he's very agile, but he can really shoot the ball,” said Miller.
The key statement by Miller is Markkanen’s ability to put the ball on the floor. He is incredibly adept at dribbling with either hand, and is a more fluid athlete than most big men his size. Shooting the ball --from the perimeter, off the dribble, or facing up in the post-- is Markkanen’s strength. He has a smooth jump shot, and he shoots the ball efficiently.
After starring for Finland’s national U18 team this summer, where he averaged 18.2 points per game, many NBA mock drafts have Markkanen slated as a potential lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft. His skillset, along with his pedigree, has Markkanen ranked as the top NBA prospect on the Wildcats roster.
What really stands out while watching Markkanen’s clips from Finland is how active he is for a big man. He runs the floor exceptionally well, and has shown that he can guard smaller players on the perimeter.
Some big men appear heavy-footed, and tend to stay near the hoop. Markkanen flies around on defense, and on offense he loves to take smaller players off the dribble when they are rotated on to him.
"He's well coached. He's played in a faster game,” said Miller. “FIBA basketball is a faster game than college basketball is they play with a 24-second shot clock. He's seen a lot of this type of movement, ball screen defense, being able to be agile, playing on both the perimeter and the post. That's how that game is played."
Markkanen is ahead of the curve offensively, but will be asked to do more on defense than ever before this season.
"He’s ahead of the game in many ways right now. We're going to ask him to do a lot defensively,” said Miller. “The physicality around the basket will be something that will be a change for him, but that's one of the reasons he came here to play college basketball. To learn that, and be more comfortable with that style."
Markkanen was recruited by other top schools like Kansas and North Carolina, and said the recruiting process was stressful. When he committed to Arizona, it was a load off of his shoulders.
"I had a lot of things going on, and obviously it's one of the biggest choices you're going to make in your whole life,” said Markkanen. “So when I was able to focus 100% on Arizona, it was relieving. I just love to be here."
Markkanen has already been named to the Karl Malone Award watch list, an accolade given to the top power forward in the nation. He could very well play his way on to many other lists this season. If he can do that, Arizona basketball could have yet another Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.
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